State legislature faces acid tests on transparency in budgeting, map-drawing

RALEIGH – For most people, 16 West Jones Street has a far less familiar ring than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But what happens inside the Legislative Building on Jones Street in Raleigh is just as critical to the lives of North Carolinians as what goes on in the White House or on Capitol Hill.

Within the columned walls of the legislature, 170 lawmakers make decisions that directly impact our state’s 10 million residents. From our schools and roads, to healthcare, water quality and access to the ballot box, these legislators play a central role in determining the direction of our state.

It’s vital that the people of North Carolina have a front-row seat to keep tabs on their representatives and weigh in on the lawmaking process. Of course, most folks don’t have time to travel to Raleigh to sit in committee meetings or floor debates. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made venturing to the legislature especially challenging this past year.

Thankfully, we’re fortunate to have some outstanding journalists providing solid coverage of the legislature. Due to the ever-changing landscape of the news industry, there’s a smaller number of reporters assigned to the General Assembly beat than in times past. But the brave few who do remain put in long hours, sometimes well into the night, helping to make sense of the crush of bills and shining a light on what our lawmakers are up to.

As a nonpartisan, grassroots organization, we at Common Cause NC also strive to keep the public informed about what’s happening on Jones Street, with an eye towards holding lawmakers accountable to their constituents. A half-century ago, we were founded as “the people’s lobby.” We take that mission seriously, working to ensure everyday folks are not forgotten within the halls of the legislature.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders deserve some credit for making the General Assembly’s activities a bit more accessible for the public, with live streaming video of committee meetings and House sessions now available through the legislature’s website at NCleg.gov. There’s still much more to do on the transparency front, however, such as posting video recordings of legislative proceedings online for those who can’t tune in live. And the state Senate should follow the House’s lead in turning on cameras in its chamber.

At NCleg.gov you can also find information on bills and how to contact your legislators. It’s important to let lawmakers know what you think about the issues that matter most to you.

Just how truly committed legislative leaders are to openness will be tested in a big way as lawmakers work on a multi-billion-dollar state budget and when this year’s session enters its homestretch. That’s when any pretense of transparency is sometimes recklessly thrown overboard as surprise bills proposing sweeping policy changes occasionally pop up without warning, pushed through by the majority party with little or no public input.

The transparency test will also be key later this year as lawmakers begin the process of drawing new congressional and legislative voting districts. Will legislative leaders shortchange the people of North Carolina through a rushed and partisan redistricting process? Will they craft gerrymandered districts behind closed doors, with politicians trying to shield themselves from accountability to the public?

Or will lawmakers break from the sordid past of gerrymandering? Will they hold meaningful public hearings, actually listen to community members and draw districts that let voters choose their representatives? That would be refreshing and what’s needed to avoid more illegal map-rigging by politicians.

We’ll get an answer to these questions in the coming months. If history is a guide, we the people will need to be vigilant, speak out and demand full transparency from legislators drawing our voting districts.

For now, keep an eye on Jones Street.

Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause NC, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.

Time to match words with action on elections

Voting rightsIt’s only August, but this is still a busy time when it comes to North Carolina elections. In accordance with state law, county boards of elections across the state are meeting today to appoint precinct judges for the upcoming local elections.

But what else will they do?

Will some counties look to close early voting sites located on college campuses? Indeed that is already happening is some parts of the state. 

Within a week of Governor Pat McCrory signing the new monster elections bill into law, several counties started taking unprecedented steps to make voting harder for all college students.

Last Monday, the Watauga County board of elections voted to eliminate the early voting site that had been located at Appalachian State University’s student center.

The following day, on the other end of the state, the board of elections in Pasquotank County went a step further in ruling Elizabeth City State University students may not run for local office and possibly will be barred from voting in future local elections.

And last Friday, the chair of the Forsyth County board of elections indicated his desire to have the board shut down the early voting polling site located at Winston Salem State University. 

So, who’s next?   Read more

Let’s straighten out ballot confusion

An editorial today in The New York Times regarding North Carolina’s poorly designed ballot highlights a potential election day mess for our state.

The problem is that in North Carolina voting straight-party does not include voting in the presidential contest. This creates undervoting — where voters select straight-party but may not realize they have not voted for president. As the Times suggests, thousands of votes could be lost, which is never a good thing, particularly in a year that polls suggest the presidential race is in a dead heat.

So, imagine this scenario — Obama loses North Carolina by a margin of less than the undervote for straight-party Democrats. It could happen. Understandably, efforts to educate voters have been ramped up this election cycle.

The state Board of Elections is requiring poll workers to explain to every voter that straight-party voting doesn’t include the presidential contest and non partisan judicial races. A written explanation is also being distributed and there are advisories posted at precincts as well as on the ballot.

Still, the law needs changed, as the Board of Elections has been recommending for years. Of the 17 states that allow for straight-party voting, only North Carolina does not include the presidential contest in a straight-party selection. Legislators put this confusing ballot rule in play decades ago as North Carolina was becoming a solid red state and Democrats were looking for an edge to hold onto power.

Maybe having North Carolina in play is a once-a-generation event. But probably not. What’s not in doubt is the North Carolina General Assembly must address this issue in 2009, so we don’t face this situation again in 2012.

In the meantime, pass it on: Voting straight-party doesn’t including voting for president.

And let’s hope that we don’t wake up Wednesday, Nov. 5 with an election nightmare on our hands.

Election reforms work for all of us

Thanks to recent election reforms, more than 400,000 North Carolinians already have cast their ballots in the Nov. 4 elections. Some have even waited in line for hours to do so.

The evidence is clear: early voting and other election reforms work.
Since the advent of early voting in 2004, state and county boards of elections around North Carolina have made great strides in expanding the right to vote to all North Carolinians. Polls now are open on Saturdays and even Sunday afternoons in some counties, helping those who previously had no way to vote on Election Day make their voice heard.

The creation and expansion of early voting has unequivocally improved American democracy. Regardless of your political views, we can all agree that voting in our country is not a privilege, but a right, and that elections should be decided by the many, not the few. Fundamentally, we are a nation built on the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Boards of elections, at the state and local level, work tirelessly to prepare for elections. They do not, as some partisans have suggested, make their choices in collusion with any candidate or party, and they do not make or abandon plans on a whim. The entire voting process, from early voting to Election Day to counting the vote, is done with thoughtful planning and consideration.

In turn, such thoughtful consideration has allowed our democracy to grow and strengthen, by the expansion of voting rights. If we are, indeed, a democratic country, we should celebrate the work and reforms that make our system more accessible today than it was yesterday.